Double Bass Legends: A Short History

Double Bass Legends: A Short History

Back around 1910, when the fledgling bass drum pedal was improved and popularized by the Ludwig family, some percussionists were cast out of a gig. Gigs back then were with orchestras large and small, accompanying staged entertainment. With the advent of Ludwig’s pedal, one drummer/percussionist could play simple bass drum parts with the pedal. It was, then as now, technology causing changes in the workplace. The growing “drum set contraption,” which would eventually become the modern drum set, was downsizing the pit band, and the common lineup of three percussionists became two, then one.

The new norm leaned towards a single-kick setup: one bass drum and one pedal. Unbelievably, there were crude double pedals available even back then. Alas, they were not remote pedals, and didn’t catch fire with players, even though they were made of wood. Bass drums of the day were huge, calfskin headed items, easily 30” in diameter and requiring much effort to maintain. One drum was certainly more practical than two, and the instrument became largely a mono-pedic pursuit. But today it is quite common for a drummer to use both feet to play the bass drum. What were some of the notable turns taken in this bipedal evolution?

(Left) Louis Bellson was one of the first drummers to add a second bass drum to his setup


It started with jazz legend Louie Bellson, a gifted musical school kid of 15 in 1939, who sketched out a double bass drum kit for an art class. The sketch earned him an “A” grade, and served as a vision of what he would become: The most famous, and arguably the first, double bass drummer. Gretsch made the first kit for Bellson, a bold and innovative move considering that other companies had rejected Bellson and his outlandish concept.

Over the years and through long affiliations with several drum manufacturers, Bellson’s double bass kits varied in configuration. His main ax has become a classic: two kicks, one tom, two floors. But that first Gretsch kit in 1946 consisted of two 20” x 20” bass drums, an 18” x 26” center tom (!), two 13” x 9” toms, two 11” x 7” toms, and 16” x 16” and 18” x 16” floor toms. By the way, Bellson did lots of cymbal stacking on his stands, too. Very Mike Portnoy, but just a little bit earlier.

Bellson did his first double bass gig in 1946, but when he got the gig with Benny Goodman, the famous bandleader didn’t like the double bass drum idea. But when Bellson joined Tommy Dorsey, an equally big top act, his new boss not only liked the double bass but also allowed Bellson to bui use a revolving drum riser.

Bellson played the double bass drums to good effect in his solos, in particular on “Skin Deep,” his own composition and showcase with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, but didn’t use double bass drumming very much as a timekeeping element in songs. This isn’t surprising, because the pulse of big band swing was not heavy-footed. Bass drums were used for accents, but also feathered lightly to add sonic support to the sound of the upright bass. Early recordings didn’t use bass drum at all, in fact, because the low frequencies of the drum would cause the recording needle to skip. The snare drum, ride cymbal, and hi-hat were still the main constituents of timekeeping.

Other swinging jazz drummers took Bellson’s lead and began using two bass drums, including Sam Woodyard (who followed Louie in the Ellington band), Rufus Jones, and Ed Shaughnessy, among others. But even as these pioneers mastered the double bass kit, paired kicks remained an oddity, awaiting a more open-minded era to break into popular use.

New York in the ’50s and early ’60s saw more and more small combos playing jazz, including the be-bop, which was the new thing. Be-bop further shrunk the trap set used by drummers and led to the popularity of smaller bass drums, such as the ubiquitous 20” x 14” and even the miniscule 18” x 14” sizes. This was done not only for musical reasons but also for a very practical one — small drums fit easily into taxi cabs that moved the busy New York players from gig to gig. A double bass kit was the last thing busy metropolitan drummers needed. Drummers all over the nation copied the New York cats; kits stayed small and bass drums stayed single.

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